Earlier this week, a leading figure in Italy’s governing centre-left PD party explained how they were looking to Emmanuel Macron for inspiration in the pitch they were making to the electorate. Their prospects look rather bleak, as an internally divided party trails the populist Five Star Movement in an election most predict will lead to a right-wing government. Perhaps even one led by Silvio Berlusconi. Are the PD worried? It seems not because they believe history is on their side:

Gozi, who is fluent in French and English and was educated at the Sorbonne and LSE, sees himself as part of the “Erasmus generation”, a group of younger leaders who see the European Union not just as a bulwark against nationalist wars, but as a multiplier of sovereignty.

He has also been at the centre of the argument that a stronger Europe can halt populism, rather than feed the alienation on which it thrives. “This has become the real new political cleavage in politics. It is now so obvious,” he said. “Are you confident that Italy can be a key actor in a new Europe capable of taking back control on immigration, security and achieving growth through reshaping the eurozone? Or do you believe the answer lies within our national borders?

What I find bewildering is how this ‘new’ division is cited as a reason for confidence. A party whose ‘third way’ centrism has led them into an electoral dead-end will effectively offer the same thing to a weary electorate, convinced that the tide of history is turning. Whereas in reality, the open/closed dichotomy has governed the imagination of liberal politics for decades! The capacity to repeat what one has already done, with ever increasing confidence about its relevance in spite of mounting evidence to the contrary, represents a pathology likely to elude any explanation other than the psychoanalytical.

I enjoyed the Japan in a Digital Age conference today, keynoted by the cultural anthropologist Ian Condry. He took an ethnographic approach to the decline of the recording industry, drawing on fieldwork in Tokyo, Boston, and Berlin to illustrate how musicians are adapting to the steady unwinding of the familiar commodity form for the production, circulation and consumption of music.

That was the promise at least but there was little detail about the social and economic conditions of cultural producers. His argument was a theoretical one with a bit of ethnographic detail thrown in to illustrate his claims. In essence, Condry attacks the notion of value as something to be found at the moment of exchange, instead arguing that value is a complex phenomenon which waxes and wanes over time.

If we see the value of music as embodied in musical commodities, we obscure the vast undercurrent of social activity upon which this depends. This passionate activity seems to be a world away from the economic interests of the musical conglomerates. But this notion of ‘passion’ can lead us to construct  commodification as something inherently  destructive of social value, taking an activity undertaken for its own intrinsic value and subordinating it to an exchange relation. From this perspective, the evisceration of music as a commodity (such that the exchange-value tends to continual shrinkage) seems like an opportunity to liberate the craft of music from the tyranny of exchange, as well as the apparatus of audit and accounting which surrounds it.

However this simplifies the relationship between economic and social value, obscuring how the commodity form of music facilitates modes of social engagement with profound cultural value. In a nutshell: being able to make a living from producing your music facilitates a form of engagement with it that might not otherwise be possible. It could also constrain this, for instance by creating pressures to maximise sales even at the cost of cultural decline, but these cultural costs are contingent constraints rather than a necessary feature of the commodity form. What matters is the broader ecology within which this form is reproduced or transformed. The problem is the concentration of the existing music industry, rather than the organisation of musical production through making and selling work to an audience.

I suspect the dichotomy of closed/open is part of the problem here. When we see one form of closure eroding, this dichotomy can lead us to assume it will be replaced by openness. Whereas in reality we can see one form of closure (musical conglomerates) being replaced by another (musical streaming, sales and crowd funding platforms). This engenders a certain naïveté about the challenges of cultural production in the gig economy, made worse if you have too much faith in your own ethnographic immersion in musical scenes.

If you’re going to advocate for ‘free’ and ‘open’ as intrinsically valuable, it’s important to spend some time getting to grips with social ontology underlying these terms. It’s much trickier to grasp than it might initially seem.

To talk of ‘openness’ conveys a sense of lightness, gesturing towards a world without self-interested boundaries. In a world dichotomised in terms of open/closed, barriers are seen as obstacles to be surmounted in order that we might have free exchange. Overcoming these obstacles becomes a moral project, imbued with a sense of historical change: barriers are fleeting constructions, inevitably eroded by the force of openness. As the futurist Peter Schwartz once put it:

Open, good. Closed, bad. Tattoo it on your forehead. Apply it to technology standards, to business strategies, to philosophies of life. It’s the winning concept for individuals, for nations, for the global community in the years ahead.

These categories are embedded in narrative forms, facilitating certain roles (e.g. the disrupter of closed industries) which elevate business activity to a heroic plane, as Audrey Watters conveys on loc 184 of The Curse of the Monsters of Educational Technology: 

“The Silicon Valley Narrative,” as I call it, is the story that the technology industry tells about the world—not only the world-as-is but the world-as-Silicon-Valley-wants-it-to-be. This narrative has several commonly used tropes. It often features a hero: the technology entrepreneur. Smart. Independent. Bold. Risk-taking. White. Male. “The Silicon Valley narrative” invokes themes like “innovation” and “disruption.” It privileges the new; everything else that can be deemed “old” is viewed as obsolete. Things are perpetually in need of an upgrade. It contends that its workings are meritocratic: anyone who hustles can make it. “The Silicon Valley Narrative” has no memory, no history, although it can invent or invoke one to suit its purposes. (“ The factory model of education” is one such invented history that I’ve written about before.) “The Silicon Valley narrative” fosters a distrust of institutions—the government, the university. It is neoliberal. It hates paying taxes. “The Silicon Valley narrative” draws from the work of Ayn Rand; it privileges the individual at all costs; it calls this “personalization.”

My instinct as a qualitative researcher is to immerse myself in these stories, seeking to appreciate how they operate to make sense of one’s own actions. But the reason this is so pressing is that the action they serve to elevate is so often problematic, as Franklin Foer points out on pg 89-90 of his A World Without Mind. They have a vested interest in ‘openness’:

There’s no doubt that they believe in their own righteousness, but they also practice corporate gamesmanship, with all the established tricks: lobbying, purchasing support in think tanks and universities, quietly donating money to advocacy groups that promote their interests. The journalist Robert Levine has written, “Google has as much interest in free online media as General Motors does in cheap gasoline. 13 That’s why the company spends millions of dollars lobbying to weaken copyright.” Google and Facebook penalize companies that don’t share their vision of intellectual property. When newspapers and magazines require subscriptions to access their pieces, Google and Facebook tend to bury them; articles protected by stringent paywalls almost never have the popularity that algorithms reward with prominence. Google, according to documents that have surfaced in lawsuits against the company, is blunt about using its power to bend the media business to its model. Jonathan Rosenberg, the vice president of product management, told company brass in 2006 that Google must “pressure premium content providers to change their model to free.” 14 It’s a perfectly rational stance. The big tech companies become far more valuable if they serve as a gateway to free knowledge, if they provide a portal to an open and comprehensive collection of material.

From The Monsters of Educational Technology, by Audrey Watters, loc 1530:

We act at our peril as if “open” is politically neutral, let alone politically good or progressive. Indeed, we sometimes use the word to stand in place of a politics of participatory democracy. We presume that, because something is “open” that it necessarily contains all the conditions for equality or freedom or justice. We use “open” as though it is free of ideology, ignoring how much “openness,” particularly as it’s used by technologists, is closely intertwined with “meritocracy” – this notion, a false one, that “open” wipes away inequalities, institutions, biases, history, that “open” “levels the playing field.”

Can we reclaim the ideal of the ‘open’ from this ideological morass or must we abandon it? As Watters observes on loc 1578, the idea of openness is often attached to ambitions for problem solving. If only we had more data, tricky  social problems would melt away:

The current administration is interested in more than just data at the school, district, and state level. It’s actively promoting the collection and analysis of student at the individual level, arguing that if we just have more data –if we “open up” the classroom, the software, the databases, the educational practices –that we will unlock the secrets of how every student learns. We can then build software that caters to that, something that will make learning more efficient and more personalized. Or that’s the argument at least. We should remember that this is mostly speculative. And we should recognize here that words like “personalization” function much like “open.” That is, they sound great in press releases, but they should prompt us to ask more questions rather than assume that they’re necessarily good.

We have to be critical of ‘openness’ as a concept. But nonetheless I think there’s a reality to openness as an ethos that we shouldn’t forget. This is my favourite articulation of it:

When my daughter was born, I became keenly aware of how much stock we mammals put into the copies we make of ourselves (yes, a child isn’t a “copy” exactly, but go with it for a moment). Mammalian reproduction is a major event, especially for us primates, and we want to be sure that every “copy” we make grows up healthy, strong and successful. 

But here are other life forms for whom copying is a lot more casual. Dandelions produce two thousand seeds every spring, and when a good, stiff breeze comes around, those seeds are blown into the air, going every which way. The dandelion’s strategy is to maximise the number of blind chances it has for continuing its genetic line – not to carefully plot every germination. It works: every summer, every crack in every sidewalk has a dandelion growing out of it

Cory Doctorow, Information Doesn’t Want To Be Free, Pg 143